Sexual Harassment & Asian College of Journalism — Official Students’ Statement

This is a statement from students of the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai (Batch of 2017–2018) with regard to:

1) The demands we made to the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) for a more robust policy against sexual harassment, and our experience interacting with them.

2) Allegations of sexual misconduct against adjunct faculty member Sadanand Menon.

We have decided to come forward with this public statement after months of back and forth with the administration. We have been disheartened by their attitude, which lacks empathy and shows little understanding of the complexities of sexual harassment. A liberal, progressive institution such as ACJ, which trains journalists to be discerning, sensitive, and to speak truth to power, should listen when they themselves are being spoken to.

In the aftermath of the public statement naming Sadanand Menon, we hope the that the ICC will respond with willingness to effect productive policy changes and ensure the safety of students and staff.

Following is a chronology of events leading up to this statement:

1) In October 2017, Sadanand Menon’s name appeared on The List of Sexual Harassers in Academia (LoSHA). Menon acknowledged this in his class the next day. “There is a list going around with my name on it. If anyone here wants to talk about this, we can,” he said. Menon proceeded — in his official capacity as a professor, using a platform provided by ACJ — to deride the list and speculate as to who put him on it. The class remained divided in their opinion.

2) Menon narrated his version of an incident with an ex-student. He speculated that the ex-student might have been the source who added his name to the list, and attributed it to a misunderstanding arising out of differing values associated with sexual freedom. Menon could think of no other incident that might have put his name on the list.

3) In January 2018, some students connected with the ex-student after seeing her article in The News Minute. While she did not name Menon, her description of the event made it clear whom Menon had been talking about in class. The ex-student’s account was at odds with Menon’s. The lines of consent which had been violated were far clearer in her telling. Various sources (including the ex-student herself), confirmed that she did not put Menon’s name on the list.

We were also informed by the ex-student that though she had complained to the ICC in January, she hadn’t received a reply as yet.

4) Out of concern for students’ safety, we began a correspondence with the administration about their policies and committee. We found that students were unaware of the existence of the ICC as it was not mentioned during the orientation.

Contact details for ICC members and the process for filing a complaint were furnished only on the college website. One individual didn’t even know that they were listed as a member of the ICC, leading us to believe that the ICC was dormant.

5) At our insistence, a new ICC was constituted and a circular issued, but ACJ had only agreed to the most cursory changes in their system. They did not agree to having a gender neutral policy or electing student representatives. Our request for an update on the allegations against Menon was cleanly ignored.

6) Between January and March 2018, details of multiple, independent, first and second hand allegations against Menon surfaced which deeply shocked and worried us. These were in connection with institutes that Menon taught at and at SPACES, the prominent cultural venue run by Menon. Furthermore, we were contacted by an alumnus who mentioned that there were informal complaints about Menon’s conduct in 2011 as well.

7) After repeated attempts at conveying our stance to the ICC and asking them to initiate an inquiry based on the ex-student’s complaint, we asked for an open meeting. Ten ICC members and 85 students were in attendance.

At the meeting:

  1. We brought up the numerous allegations that had surfaced. We specifically mentioned that we did not want the ICC to investigate anonymous complaints, but requested them to go beyond their legal ambit and address the ex-student’s complaint in light of this brimming whisper network about Menon.
  2. We sought an update on the steps taken by the college to address the ex-student’s complaint. It emerged that the complaint had been received, but the ICC had not responded to her a whole month after she wrote to them. This concerned the student body immensely as it showed how lightly the college was treating this matter.
  3. We demanded the adoption of certain specific measures to improve the ICC which were detailed as follows:
  • Take Ambedkar University’s precedent and allow third parties to file complaints.
  • Reach out to ex-students with the aim of uncovering cases of sexual harassment against currently employed faculty. Such a proactive position would reflect the college’s concern for the safety of students.
  • Have student representatives on the ICC to improve accessibility and transparency.
  • Furnish contact details for all ICC members (rather than just one email id) to improve accessibility.
  • Adopt a gender neutral policy with regard to cases of sexual harassment, keeping in mind the safety of gender and sexual minorities on campus.
  • Institute at least one workshop on sexual harassment/gender sensitization for students and staff in keeping with the law.
  • Include at least one common gender studies lecture apart from the elective subject.

During the meeting, we constantly reminded the ICC that we understand that procedure has to be followed but the creation of the procedure depended on them.

However, the attitude of some members towards the allegations against Menon were very troublesome. The new Chair of the ICC at one point told us to consider the man’s reputation before making these claims, even though we mentioned these were first and second-hand accounts that had been verified with journalistic rigour. Several times members told us to “name names” and asked why the victims wanted to be anonymous and why they would complain after so many months. We were constantly asked why said victims haven’t filed a police complaint as yet. The Chair also bizarrely asked a student what she would do if her friend was accused of being a sexual harasser. Other than this dismaying attitude towards gender justice, we felt that ICC members were constantly stonewalling us and refusing to engage by stating “it is the law”. This despite the fact that the members confessed they are not familiar with the law and will consult with the legal counsel.

We deeply regret the nature of this meeting, but given the hostility of the Committee and their staunch refusal to engage with us, calling attempts at dialogue by students “a war against the college,” we feel it was the only way to raise the above points.

The ICC said they would consult their counsel and get back to us in two weeks. On March 28, we received a letter from the ICC dismissing the complaints against Sadanand Menon as defamatory and blaming us for using the meeting to make “shockingly wild allegations”. We were further told that our attempt to hold the institution accountable for who it employs, while the person in question has himself discussed his involvement in a sexual harassment incident, was an attempt to character assassinate. The ICC asked us for two weeks to respond to our demands, but their response simply stated that they had addressed our concerns multiple times. If one looks at the chain of emails shared between students and ICC, one will see that these issues were merely skirted around, not addressed proactively.

The ICC had also told us that they had considered the ex-student’s complaint, but could not act on it as the procedure was time-barred and the incident happened outside college. If they had considered the case, why wasn’t the ex-student told that her complaint was under consideration? For over a month and a half, the ICC did not bother to even acknowledge that a complaint has been received, and this worries us tremendously.

We are extremely concerned about the integrity of the ICC. While Sashi Kumar has on record denied having anything to do with the Committee or its proceedings, it was clear to us that he was aware of them, and was receiving the emails we wrote to the ICC. Within ten minutes of our meeting, the Committee met with Kumar in plain sight of students. We have also ascertained from an adjunct faculty member that Kumar has had a significant role in the ICC’s decision-making.

A member of the ICC whom a student later spoke to said, “Personally, I believe all the allegations but our hands are tied.”

We are now calling out to alumni and others for support. While it is essential that everybody is treated with fairness, we wonder whether it is possible in this context, when the ones in authority and the accused themselves are old friends and peers.

We raised these questions out of concern for the institution and the students that come here every year. ICCs are required to be proactive and sensitive given the nature of the cases they handle. We expected ACJ to uphold its reputation and adopt a truly pioneering means of preventing sexual harassment on campus, not just redressing complaints. Exemplary institutes such as Ambedkar University go so far as to provide financial compensation to those involved in proceedings, hold elections for membership to the committee, provide counselling and even allow for third parties to register complaints.

We regret to note that the ICC at ACJ has failed in this regard and chosen instead to fulfill the bare minimum legal requirements. ACJ has displayed in no uncertain terms an allegiance to those who are close to the institution, and a deep-seated apathy toward the issue of sexual harassment.

Sincerely,
Students against sexual harassment, Batch of 2017–18.

*This statement was written by a group of recent ACJ graduates who have been following the issue since October 2017.